In Britain austerity has been used by the government to ram through fracking against massive popular opposition. This is an attack on the commons, dispossesing the public of its wealth and its land.
Joanna Gilmore is Lecturer at York Law School, University of York
Will Jackson is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University
Helen Monk is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion, Liverpool John Moores University
Hydraulic fracturing, better known as ‘fracking,’ is a central pillar of the UK government’s strategy on ‘energy security.’ The rise of fracking in the UK, encouraged by current and previous governments, is based on an attempt to replicate the fracking boom seen in the US and, in the last decade, technological advancements developed in the US—specifically the merger of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques—have been exported around the globe. Significant shale deposits have been identified across Europe and in the UK exploratory drilling has been actively encouraged by UK governments since 2007.
However, at these new frontiers the developing onshore oil and gas industry has met resistance in countries all around the world. New coalitions of local opponents and more established climate and social justice groups have focused on the risks of environmental degradation seemingly inherent in fracking, with campaigners pointing to the real environmental impacts already documented in the US. The potential for a European shale gas revolution has been hindered by opposition across the continent and bans or restrictions have been implemented in countries including Ireland, France, Netherlands, and Germany. In the UK devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have also imposed moratoriums forcing the UK government to focus on the development of fracking in England.
Fracking involves the pumping of water, proppants (sand or similar manufactured granules) and assorted chemicals into the ground at high pressure and opponents have highlighted the risks of land, air, and water pollution, seismic instability, and the broader issue of maintaining a reliance on carbon intensive fossil fuels in the face of global climate change. Evidence from the US demonstrates the real risk of ground-water contamination and the uncontrolled release of toxic fluids. The US experience also illustrates the risk of seismic instability, a risk realized in England when the first test drilling was conducted in Lancashire in 2011. Considering environmental impacts more generally, fracking, as the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels, raises concerns about climate change and a declining commitment to renewable energy that appears to accompany an embrace of fracking.
To understand how, and why, this form of fuel extraction is being so fervently supported by the UK government and corporations in the face of both the apparent risks and growing popular opposition, we have to locate the development of fracking in historical, economic, and political context. In doing so, we are able to make sense of the importance of fracking to contemporary capitalism, and to understand why, in the UK at least, fracking has become an urgent government priority in the era of austerity.
Despite the environmental risks associated with fracking, its economic potential has been loudly championed by government and the fracking industry as an essential component of UK energy policy for the 21st century. In 2014 fracking was sold to the public by the then Prime Minister David Cameron as being ‘good for the country’ and positioned as central to the government’s ‘long term economic plan’. In the UK, the development of fracking has been accelerated most significantly within the austerity agenda imposed since 2010 and has been promoted by both government and the onshore oil and gas industry through appeals to energy security and economic recovery. This is not a coincidence. Rather than seeing fracking and austerity as disconnected issues, it is more useful to consider their connections as contemporary strategies of accumulation. Fracking is, in this sense, part of economic policy and is bound up in a particular vision of contemporary capitalism developed by successive governments in the UK since 2007. Positioning fracking within the austerity agenda, and moreover, positioning it within the wider neoliberal project that defines the politics of austerity, helps us to draw out its place within contemporary capitalism.
Fracking and austerity are united in their status as contemporary, interconnected forms of what David Harvey has termed ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Accumulation by dispossession is the concept deployed by Harvey to help us to understand that the ‘primitive’ accumulation described by Marx in final chapters of Capital is a continuous, omnipresent, and vital component of capitalism, as opposed to a historic phase situated at its origins. In this sense, the regime of accumulation based on ‘predation, fraud and violence’ described by Marx is constant, and lies at the core of contemporary capitalism. In focusing on dispossession, Harvey has sought to draw our attention to processes by which wealth and power are increasingly centralized in the hands of a small elite and that this is achieved, in no small part, by dispossessing the public of their wealth and/or land. Crucially, it is through the foundational process of dispossession that the privatisation, redistribution, and deregulation central to austerity, are connected to the enclosure, exploitation, and degradation of land and energy resources inherent in fracking.
For Harvey, ‘contemporary forms of dispossession are now increasingly administered under the virtuous disguise of a politics of the austerity required to bring an ailing capitalism back into a supposed healthy state’. The reliance on dispossession is key to neoliberalism’s central aim to ‘open up new fields for capital accumulation’ and austerity and fracking must be understood as connected in their contemporary importance to capitalism post financial crisis. While fracking has been championed, and actively encouraged, by UK governments, since 2007, it has assumed greater urgency under the conditions of austerity. It has been promoted through appeals to the new common-sense in the age of austerity, promoted as a significant source of revenue that cannot be wasted in times of hardship. Fracking has been lauded, most notably from 2013, by both industry and key figures in government (including very vocal support from Cameron and Osbourne and now by the May government) for its potential to reduce gas prices, create jobs, help ‘hard workers’, bring money into local communities, and increase living standards for the next generation. These appeals have clearly tied into the dominant narrative on austerity and the pursuit of ‘economic security’. The most explicit attempts to ‘sell’ fracking to local communities have come in the form of a shale wealth fund established by ex-chancellor George Osborne to allow a percentage of the proceeds from fracking to be given to councils or community trusts to spend. This policy has been revamped by Theresa May in a promise to give money instead directly to households in areas affected by fracking. While remaining a tiny proportion of the potential revenues from shale extraction, these proposed payments, described by critics as ‘bribes’ or ‘compensation’, are clearly aimed at communities suffering the effects of austerity.
According to the political logic driving the fracking agenda, it would be foolish to fail to exploit the resources at ‘our’ disposal when communities are suffering from the unavoidable pain of austerity measures. But the call for the exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of the nation – where the relationship between the British public and fracking was explained by Cameron through the mantra of ‘we’re all in this together’ – is an attempt to conceal a process of dispossession.
In the contemporary era, states and corporations have a major problem in that accumulation by dispossession is central to the survival of capitalism, but it is in response to acts of dispossession that capitalism meets its most significant source of resistance. The strength of anti-globalisation and anti-austerity movements are a testament to the centrality of struggles around dispossession. The privatisation and degradation of the natural environment that neoliberalism has met its most powerful sources of opposition illustrated in growing environmental movements around the world. It is here also that the importance of the state is further revealed in both facilitating acts of dispossession themselves through state-corporate alliances, and in the policing of resistance.
Capitalism requires the state to be ‘an enforcer of austerity’, and in the same way the development of fracking in the UK has been reliant on state interventions that have included: substantial tax breaks for the fracking industry, changes to property laws to disarm opponents, government led opposition to EU regulation, the issuing of drilling licenses in the face of local opposition, and the provision of government-funded boreholes. The importance of state intervention in this context is reinforced here, but it is arguably in the response to dissent that we see more clearly the significance of the capitalist state’s monopoly over the means of violence. The two sides of state intervention – the regulation and organisation of privatisation and dispossession, and the repression of resistance – are as crucial to the onward march of onshore oil and gas extraction as they are to the endurance of austerity.
Since 2013, the UK has witnessed the exercise of police violence in response to community opposition to fracking. Mirroring community responses to fracking around the world, the attempt to privatise public resources, combined with an apparent disregard for the natural environment on behalf of states and corporations, has elicited opposition from established campaigners and local residents in each of the sites selected for exploratory drilling. Monitoring of anti-fracking protest by The Network for Police Monitoring has documented policing strategies that have included ‘large-scale operations, inappropriate police powers and arrests, the disproportionate use of physical force and a reluctance to negotiate in good faith with protesters’. The experience of protesters at anti-fracking protests around England has demonstrated that this approach is applied to those protests who seek to actively disrupt the nascent shale gas industry. The small number of researchers and journalists who have documented the policing of anti-fracking protests since 2013 have illustrated how the government and fracking industry are reliant on police power to push forward an industry that has continued to experience declining public support.
Whilst seeking to disrupt the operation, protesters have maintained a committment to peaceful, non-violenct direct action in-keeping with the principles of the envrionmental movement more generally. These actions however have elicited a tough response from police forces. The experience at Barton Moss in Salford, Greater Manchester in 2013-14 is illustrative of the evolving approach of police to anti-fracking protest. At Barton Moss, Greater Manchester Police [GMP] met the protest with a substantial police presence at almost every protest event and utilized a significant number of Tactical Aid Unit (public order) officers in the routine management of what were relatively small scale daily protest marches. There were more than 200 arrests – including the detention of children, pregnant, and elderly protesters, and the violent arrest of women – alongside many additional reports of police misconduct related to GMP’s management of the protest. Bail and arrest powers were routinely abused in the management of the protest and research by the authors found that violent behaviour and harassment were central features of the policing operation including sexualised violence by GMP officers experienced by several women who were involved at Barton Moss. In refusing to facilitate a peaceful protest, the police at Barton Moss did not simply fail to fulfil their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, but mounted an operation predominantly concerned with stripping the protest of legitimacy and justifying its suppression. We saw at Barton Moss how, through an alliance between police and corporation, a non-violent protest was repressed, and the actions of the community affected were repeatedly presented as irrational and dangerous responses to an uncontroversial and necessary process. This approach is being replicated at sites around England.
In considering contemporary forms of accumulation by dispossession, Harvey stressed that these processes require the power of the state to impose them upon communities, by force if necessary. As we have seen at sites around England in recent years, as well at protests against the slow violence of environmental degradation globally, the use of police power to pacify resistance illustrates the continued dependency of capital on state violence. Forms of protest approved, or at least tolerated, by the neoliberal state, include only those that do not threaten the status quo. Any real attempt to disrupt, or even bring into question the fundamental features of the current order, fall outside the incredibly narrow definition of ‘peaceful’ protest and are thus defined as unacceptable, and responded to as such. The emphasis on respecting the right to peaceful protest enables police to justify the repression of protests that they can designate as outside of the accepted parameters. This is as evident in police responses to environmental protests as it has been in response to anti-austerity protests around the world since the financial crisis.
A substantive opposition to fracking or austerity involves posing a threat to the reproduction of contemporary capitalism and these opponents are responded to by states and corporations in line with the threat that they pose. An effective opposition to any form of accumulation by dispossession is anti-capitalist. As the policing of those movements who seek to disrupt accumulation illustrates, states, alongside private security forces, continue to be willing and able to exercise violence in response to resistance movements. Recent experiences of fracking in the UK and around the world, have demonstrated both the environmental and social impacts that define the process. Those communities attempting to confront the slow violence of environmental damage are in turn being countered by the violence of the state. To seek a future that spares the planet and its protectors from this fate is to imagine, and begin to enact, an alternative to capitalism; those actively challenging the status of fossil fuels in our current order are already doing this, but they do so at great risk. Challenging the violence of neoliberalism involves us exposing the current role that dispossession plays in reproducing and exacerbating inequality. Here our task requires us to dismantle the commonsense of austerity and to understand that in this context, a process such as fracking is not simply peripheral to capitalism but central to its survival. Governments and corporations know this, and that’s why they are, in the words of David Cameron, ‘going all out for shale’.
 Greenpeace, Fracking’s Environmental Impacts: Water, n.d. accessed 29th August 2016, http://tinyurl.com/h9bekpb
 David Harvey, “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register 40 (2004): 63-87
 David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, London: Profile, 2014, , p.58
 David Harvey, ‘Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610: 22–44, 2006, pp. 35.
 Craig Browne and Simon Susen, ‘Austerity and Its Antitheses: Practical Negations of Capitalist Legitimacy’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 113: 2, Spring 2014 p.220
 Netpol, Netpol secures funds until 2018 to campaign to change anti-fracking protest policing, July 8th, 2016, accessed August 29th, 2016, https://netpol.org/2016/07/08/new-jrrt-funding-fracking/#more-4164
 Joanna Gilmore, Will Jackson and Helen Monk, Keep Moving! Report on the Policing of the Barton Moss Community Protection Camp, Liverpool: CCSE & York, 2016 CURB
 Harvey, The ‘New’ Imperialism.